Illinois v Wardlow

Citation120 S.Ct. 673,528 U.S. 119,145 L.Ed.2d 570
Decision Date12 January 2000
Docket Number981036
PartiesILLINOIS v. WARDLOW
CourtSupreme Court of Illinois

528 U.S 119
120 S.Ct. 673
145 L.Ed.2d 570

ILLINOIS
v.
WARDLOW

No. 98-1036.

Argued November 2, 1999
Decided January 12, 2000

Certiorari to the Supreme Court of Illinois

Syllabus

Respondent Wardlow fled upon seeing a caravan of police vehicles converge on an area of Chicago known for heavy narcotics trafficking. When Officers Nolan and Harvey caught up with him on the street, Nolan stopped him and conducted a protective pat-down search for weapons because in his experience there were usually weapons in the vicinity of narcotics transactions. Discovering a handgun, the officers arrested Wardlow. The Illinois trial court denied his motion to suppress, finding the gun was recovered during a lawful stop and frisk. He was convicted of unlawful use of a weapon by a felon. In reversing, the State Appellate Court found that Nolan did not have reasonable suspicion to make the stop under Terry v. Ohio, 392 U. S. 1. The State Supreme Court affirmed, determining that sudden flight in a high crime area does not create a reasonable suspicion justifying a Terry stop because flight may simply be an exercise of the right to "go on one's way," see Florida v. Royer, 460 U. S. 491.

Held: The officers' actions did not violate the Fourth Amendment. This case, involving a brief encounter between a citizen and a police officer on a public street, is governed by Terry, under which an officer who has a reasonable, articulable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot may conduct a brief, investigatory stop. While "reasonable suspicion" is a less demanding standard than probable cause, there must be at least a minimal level of objective justification for the stop. An individual's presence in a "high crime area," standing alone, is not enough to support a reasonable, particularized suspicion of criminal activity, but a location's characteristics are relevant in determining whether the circumstances are sufficiently suspicious to warrant further investigation, Adams v. Williams, 407 U. S. 143, 144, 147-148. In this case, moreover, it was also Wardlow's unprovoked flight that aroused the officers' suspicion. Nervous, evasive behavior is another pertinent factor in determining reasonable suspicion, e.g., United States v. Brignoni-Ponce, 422 U. S. 873, 885, and headlong flight is the consummate act of evasion. In reviewing the propriety of an officer's conduct, courts do not have available empirical studies dealing with inferences from suspicious behavior, and this Court cannot reasonably demand scientific certainty when none exists. Thus, the reasonable suspicion determination must be based on commonsense judgments and inferences about human behavior. See United States v. Cortez, 449 U. S. 411, 418. Officer Nolan was justified in suspecting that Wardlow was involved in criminal activity, and, therefore, in investigating further. Such a holding is consistent with the decision in Florida v. Royer, supra, at 498, that an individual, when approached, has a right to ignore the police and go about his business. Unprovoked flight is the exact opposite of "going about one's business." While flight is not necessarily indicative of ongoing criminal activity, Terry recognized that officers can detain individuals to resolve ambiguities in their conduct, 392 U. S., at 30, and thus accepts the risk that officers may stop innocent people. If they do not learn facts rising to the level of probable cause, an individual must be allowed to go on his way. But in this case the officers found that Wardlow possessed a handgun and arrested him for violating a state law. The propriety of that arrest is not before the Court. Pp. 3-6.

183 Ill. 2d 306, 701 N. E. 2d 484, reversed and remanded.

Rehnquist, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which O'Connor, Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas, JJ., joined. Stevens, J., filed an an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer, JJ., joined.

ILLINOIS, PETITIONER
v.
WILLIAM aka SAM WARDLOW

On writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court of Illinois

January 12, 2000

Chief Justice Rehnquist delivered the opinion of the Court.

Respondent Wardlow fled upon seeing police officers patrolling an area known for heavy narcotics trafficking. Two of the officers caught up with him, stopped him and conducted a protective pat-down search for weapons. Discovering a .38-caliber handgun, the officers arrested Wardlow. We hold that the officers' stop did not violate the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

On September 9, 1995, Officers Nolan and Harvey were working as uniformed officers in the special operations section of the Chicago Police Department. The officers were driving the last car of a four car caravan converging on an area known for heavy narcotics trafficking in order to investigate drug transactions. The officers were traveling together because they expected to find a crowd of people in the area, including lookouts and customers.

As the caravan passed 4035 West Van Buren, Officer Nolan observed respondent Wardlow standing next to the building holding an opaque bag. Respondent looked in the direction of the officers and fled. Nolan and Harvey turned their car southbound, watched him as he ran through the gangway and an alley, and eventually cornered him on the street. Nolan then exited his car and stopped respondent. He immediately conducted a protective pat-down search for weapons because in his experience it was common for there to be weapons in the near vicinity of narcotics transactions. During the frisk, Officer Nolan squeezed the bag respondent was carrying and felt a heavy, hard object similar to the shape of a gun. The officer then opened the bag and discovered a .38-caliber handgun with five live rounds of ammunition. The officers arrested Wardlow.

The Illinois trial court denied respondent's motion to suppress, finding the gun was recovered during a lawful stop and frisk. App. 14. Following a stipulated bench trial, Wardlow was convicted of unlawful use of a weapon by a felon. The Illinois Appellate Court reversed Wardlow's conviction, concluding that the gun should have been suppressed because Officer Nolan did not have reasonable suspicion sufficient to justify an investigative stop pursuant to Terry v. Ohio, 392 U. S. 1 (1968). 287 Ill. App. 3d 367, 678 N. E. 2d 65 (1997).

The Illinois Supreme Court agreed. 183 Ill. 2d 306, 701 N. E. 2d 484 (1998). While rejecting the Appellate Court's conclusion that Wardlow was not in a high crime area, the Illinois Supreme Court determined that sudden flight in such an area does not create a reasonable suspicion justifying a Terry stop. Id., at 310, 701 N. E. 2d, at 486. Relying on Florida v. Royer, 460 U. S. 491 (1983), the court explained that although police have the right to approach individuals and ask questions, the individual has no obligation to respond. The person may decline to answer and simply go on his or her way, and the refusal to respond, alone, does not provide a legitimate basis for an investigative stop. 183 Ill. 2d, at 311-312, 701 N. E. 2d, at 486-487. The court then determined that flight may simply be an exercise of this right to "go on one's way," and, thus, could not constitute reasonable suspicion justifying a Terry stop. Id., at 312, 701 N. E. 2d, at 487.

The Illinois Supreme Court also rejected the argument that flight combined with the fact that it occurred in a high crime area supported a finding of reasonable suspicion because the "high crime area" factor was not sufficient standing alone to justify a Terry stop. Finding no independently suspicious circumstances to support an investigatory detention, the court held that the stop and subsequent arrest violated the Fourth Amendment. We granted certiorari, 526 U. S. ___ (1999), and now reverse.1

This case, involving a brief encounter between a citizen and a police officer on a public street, is governed by the analysis we first applied in Terry. In Terry, we held that an officer may, consistent with the Fourth Amendment, conduct a brief, investigatory stop when the officer has a reasonable, articulable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot. Terry, supra, at 30. While "reasonable suspicion" is a less demanding standard than probable cause and requires a showing considerably less than preponderance of the evidence, the Fourth Amendment requires at least a minimal level of objective justification for making the stop. United States v. Sokolow, 490 U. S. 1, 7 (1989). The officer must be able to articulate more than an "inchoate and unparticularized suspicion or `hunch' " of criminal activity. Terry, supra, at 27.2

Nolan and Harvey were among eight officers in a four car caravan that was converging on an area known for heavy narcotics trafficking, and the officers anticipated encountering a large number of people in the area, including drug customers and individuals serving as lookouts. App. 8. It was in this context that Officer Nolan decided to investigate Wardlow after observing him flee. An individual's presence in an area of expected criminal activity, standing alone, is not enough to support a reasonable, particularized suspicion that the person is committing a crime. Brown v. Texas, 443 U. S. 47 (1979). But officers are not required to ignore the relevant characteristics of a location in determining whether the circumstances are sufficiently suspicious to warrant further investigation. Accordingly, we have previously d the fact that the stop occurred in a "high crime area" among the relevant contextual considerations in a Terry analysis. Adams v. Williams, 407 U. S. 143, 144 and 147-148 (1972).

In this case, moreover, it was not merely respondent's presence in an area of heavy narcotics trafficking that aroused the officers' suspicion but his unprovoked flight upon noticing the police. Our cases...

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